The Scottish Wasabi Fire Alarm

February 26th, 2017

The National Museum of Scotland includes in its vast collection this item, number T.2012.28:


Fire alarm for waking deaf people by nasal irritation with synthesized wasabi, awarded 2011 Ig Nobel prize in chemistry, designed by Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami, Japan, 2012

Inventor Makoto Imai himself donated this item to the museum, in Edinburgh, during the 2012 Ig Nobel EuroTour.

With enough data, you can figure out any problem, maybe

February 25th, 2017

Throw enough data at a problem, and you will find the answer, perhaps, or maybe, or possibly. That general approach fuels much optimism, research, and financial investment. Jeneen Interlandi explores part of the notion, in an article called “The Paradox of Precision Medicine,” in the April 2016 issue of Scientific American:

Precision medicine sounds like an inarguably good thing. It begins with the observation that individuals vary in their genetic makeup and that their diseases and responses to medications differ as a result. It then aims to find the right drug, for the right patient, at the right time, every time….

Ask scientists who favor precision medicine for an example of what it might accomplish, and they are likely to tell you about ivacaftor, a new drug that has eased symptoms in a small and very specific subset of patients with cystic fibrosis…

But ask opponents for an example of why precision medicine is fatally flawed, and they, too, are likely to tell you about ivacaftor….

If [scientists were able to gather a diverse and huge enough amount of data, and compare it] among as many individuals as possible, they would finally be able to pinpoint which constellation of forces drive which diseases, how best to identify those forces and how to devise treatments that target them….

Scientists learn more every day about the distinct forces that interact to produce disease in individuals. It is natural and fitting that they should start putting that information together in a systematic way. But society should not expect such efforts to completely transform medicine any time soon.



Is it a Mug or Cup? Recent Progress in Fuzziness Studies

February 23rd, 2017

Where does a cup end and a mug start? And vice versa? Help towards answering this consistently vexing question can be found in an essay by Brett Laybutt entitled A Corpus Study of ‘Cup of [Tea]’ and ‘Mug of [Tea]’ In which he cites the work of scholars who have tried, over the years, to crack its complexities – e.g. the work of Professor William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania.

“One of the first, and most influential, was Labov‟s (2004) original 1975 experiment in which subjects were shown pictures of varying indeterminacy and asked to label them.”

“From this, Labov was able to come up with a mathematical definition of ‘cup’. ”

Further reading : Labov, W. (2004). “The Boundaries of Words and their Meanings”. In B. Aarts, D. Denison, E. Keizer, & G. Popova (Eds.), Fuzzy Grammar: A Reader. Currently available at £185 from Oxford University Press.

Coming soon : How much water is in a cup of tea?

Sighing: Neurobiologists hasten to catch up with psychologists

February 21st, 2017

Psychologists, having been decorated (see below) for pursuing insights about why people sigh, now see neurobiologists tailing after them.

A press release earlier this year from UCLA announces: “UCLA and Stanford researchers pinpoint origin of sighing reflex in the brain“. The press release also contains a body of text, which contains this explanation: “Sighing appears to be regulated by the fewest number of neurons we have seen linked to a fundamental human behavior,” explained Jack Feldman, a professor of neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the UCLA Brain Research Institute. “One of the holy grails in neuroscience is figuring out how the brain controls behavior. Our finding gives us insights into mechanisms that may underlie much more complex behaviors.” Details are in a study published in the journal Nature, called “The peptidergic control circuit for sighing”, by Peng Li, Wiktor A. Janczewski, Kevin Yackle, Kaiwen Kam, Silvia Pagliardini, Mark A. Krasnow and Jack L. Feldman.

karlteThe 2011 Ig Nobel Prize for psychology was awarded to Karl Halvor Teigen [pictured here] of the University of Oslo, for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh. (Teigen published details in the paper “Is a Sigh ‘Just a Sigh’? — Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task,” Karl Halvor Teigen, Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, vol. 49, no. 1, 2008, pp. 49–57.)

Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer

February 20th, 2017

“The dirt ground into the margins of medieval manuscripts is one of their interpretable features, which can help us to understand the desires, fears, and reading habits of the past.”

– explains researcher Dr Kathryn M. Rudy who is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Art History, of the University of St Andrews, Scotland. She points out, however, that :-

“Cleaning or trimming the dirt from them is tantamount to discarding a provocative cultural witness.“

Dr Rudy proposes instead the use of a densitometer – a machine that measures the darkness of a reflecting surface and which can reveal which texts a reader favoured, but without damaging the dirt.

See: Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer in the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art. Volume 2, Issue 1-2 (Summer 2010).